Walter Keane

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Walter Keane
Walter Stanley Keane.jpg
Born Walter Stanley Keane
(1915-10-07)October 7, 1915
Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.
Died December 27, 2000(2000-12-27) (aged 85)
Encinitas, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Known for Painting, illustration

Walter Stanley Keane (October 7, 1915 – December 27, 2000) was an American artist who became famous in the early 1960's for painting a series of widely-reproduced paintings depicting vulnerable waifs with enormous eyes.[1] In subsequent years, it was determined in legal proceedings that the artist Margaret Keane, who was married to Keane from 1955–65, was the actual designer and painter of the works that had become famous under the name of Walter Keane.


Walter Keane was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in October 7, 1915, one of 10 children from his father's second marriage. His father, Stanley Keane, was born in Ireland; his mother was from Denmark. Keane grew up near the center of Lincoln and made money by selling shoes. In the early 1930s he moved to Los Angeles, California where he attended Los Angeles City College.[2] He moved to Berkeley, California in the 1940s with his bride, Barbara (née Ingham), and went into real estate, both were real estate brokers.

Their first child, a son, died shortly after birth in the hospital. In 1947 they had a healthy baby girl, Susan Hale Keane. Walter and Barbara bought a huge home, over 5,000 sq ft (with a ballroom) designed by the architect Julia Morgan (who also designed Hearst Castle.) In 1948 the Keanes traveled to Europe, living in Heidelberg and later Paris. It was in Paris that Walter studied art, painting primarily nudes and Paris street scenes. His wife Barbara studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, and also studied dress design in various Couturier Houses in Paris. When they returned to their home in Berkeley, began an educational toy business called "Susie Keane's Puppeteens", teaching children to speak French through the use of handmade puppets, phonograph records, and a book. The "ballroom" of their large home became an assembly line of hand painted "wide eyed" wooden puppets, with various intricately made costumes. The puppets were sold in high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue.

Barbara Keane later became head of her own department in dress design at the University of California in Berkeley. Walter Keane subsequently closed his Berkeley, California real estate firm and the toy company to devote full-time to his painting. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1952. At a fairgrounds in 1953, Walter met an artist doing charcoal sketches, her name was Margaret (Doris Hawkins) Ulbrich. She was married to Frank Ulbrich and had one daughter, Jane Ulbrich. Margaret and Frank later divorced, and Margaret married Walter Keane in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1955.[3]

Walter Keane married his third wife, Joan Mervin of British Columbia, Canada, after his divorce with Margaret was final. They had two children in the early 1970s, while living in London, England. That marriage also ended in divorce.


Keane claimed his inspiration for the big-eyed children came when he was in Europe as an art student.[2] He is quoted as saying, "My psyche was scarred in my art student days in Europe, just after World War II, by an ineradicable memory of war-wracked innocents. In their eyes lurk all of mankind's questions and answers. If mankind would look deep into the soul of the very young, he wouldn't need a road map. I wanted other people to know about those eyes, too. I want my paintings to clobber you in the heart and make you yell, 'DO SOMETHING!"[1]

In 1957, after having been painting full-time for nine years, Keane decided it would be "a good idea" to display his work at an outdoor art show being held in Washington Square in Manhattan.[4] In 1959 he and wife Margaret were referred to as "the family that paints together sells together". In a New York exhibition, patrons bought 20 pieces of Walter's, 20 of Margaret's, and six painted by their daughters Susan and Jane.[5] In 1961, The Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation bought Keane's painting Our Children and presented it to the United Nations Children's Fund. It is in the United Nations permanent collection of art.[6] In 1965 Keane was named "one of the most controversial and most successful painters at work today", with his works owned by many celebrities and hanging in many permanent collections.[7][8]

In the 1960s, Margaret Keane's artwork was sold under the name of her husband, Walter Keane, who claimed credit for her work. Conflict over that issue was cited as one of the reasons they divorced. The Keanes' divorce proceedings went all the way to federal court. At the hearing, Margaret challenged Walter to a "paint-off" and created a painting in front of the judge to prove that she was the artist.[9] Walter declined to paint before the court, citing a sore shoulder. She left her home in San Francisco on November 1, 1964 for Hawaii, where she lived for 27 years. In March 1965, she divorced Walter. In 1970, she remarried to Honolulu sports writer, Dan McGuire.[10] In 1986, the courts sided with Margaret, enabling her to paint under her own name.

Her works while living in her husband's shadow tended to depict sad children in a dark setting, but after divorcing, moving to Hawaii, and becoming a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, her paintings took on a happier, brighter style. Her website now advertises her work as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness".

Currently, Margaret makes her home in Napa County, California. She will be portrayed by Amy Adams in the upcoming film, Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton, a Keane art collector who once commissioned the artist to paint his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie in the 1990s.

Keane was 85 when he died 7 years later, on December 27, 2000, in Encinitas, California.[11]

Cultural references[edit]

A Keane painting makes a brief appearance in the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper. Upon seeing it, Diane Keaton punningly says, "Oh it's Keane. It's pure Keane. No, no, it's greater than Keane—it's Cugat!"[citation needed]


Tim Burton is directing and producing the upcoming film based on Keane's life, titled Big Eyes. It is set to release to theaters in December 2014 with Christoph Waltz playing Keane and Amy Adams playing his wife, Margaret.[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Howard, Jane (August 27, 1965). "The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes: The Phenomenal Success of Walter Keane". Life Magazine. pp. Vol. 59, No. 9 – pp. 39, 45, 48. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b "Eyes Have a Nay". St. Petersburg Times. October 21, 1970. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Margaret Keane Gets Divorce". Free Lance-Star. March 19, 1965. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  4. ^ Wilcock, John (June 19, 1957). "Walter Keane, Artist: Crosses the Continent for the Show in the Square". Village Voice. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  5. ^ Pauley, Gay (December 27, 1959). "The Family That Paints Together Sells Together". Modesto Bee. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  6. ^ Margaret Keane, Walter Stanley Keane, Richard Nolan (1962). Margaret and Walter Keane. Tomorrow's masters series. Prescolite. p. 12. 
  7. ^ Bishop, Katherine (March 4, 1992). "Paintings Of Small Kids With Big Eyes Are Back". Spokesman-Review (Google News Archive). Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  8. ^ Paradise of the Pacific, Volumes 77-78. 1965. 
  9. ^ "Tim Burton 'Big Eyes' Movie Tells The Story Of Art Couple Margaret and Walter Keane...", Huffington Post, April 4, 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
  10. ^ "Big Eyes and All: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Keane", page 27
  11. ^ Levy, Dan (January 4, 2001). "Keane, Artist Associated With Big-Eyed Portraits". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  12. ^ Fleming, Mike, Jr. (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton To Direct ‘Big Eyes’; The Weinstein Company Putting Finishing Brush Strokes On Deal For Painting Saga". Retrieved April 3, 2013. 
  13. ^ Chitwood, Adam (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton to Next Direct Biopic BIG EYES; Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams Will Star". Collider. Retrieved April 3, 2013. 

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